When Chuck Clough and Ronnie Hirschberg first met at an open mike night at Main Streets Café in Concord, the self-described “suburban dad musicians” discovered common ground in their interest in live music.
Clough, a financial services professional from Carlisle, soon invited Hirschberg, a physician and medical researcher from Acton, to join his band, The Butler Frogs.
But Clough found another project of Hirschberg’s even more intriguing: his Deer Mountain Songwriter Series, in which songwriters are invited to perform their original works with Hirschberg’s band.
“I remember thinking that all these musicians have such interesting stories,” Clough said of watching the informal performances.
“Some do this for a living, some are stay-at-home parents who write songs when they have a minute to spare, some teach or run music programs. And some, like Ronnie and me, have professions completely unrelated to songwriting. But you never really get to hear what their story is.”
Clough wished there was a way to disseminate these back stories more widely, especially to fledgling musicians who might find them inspiring or encouraging. And then he found out about podcasting, the low-budget system for recording an audio show that can then be distributed digitally.
Last June, Clough officially launched his podcast, “Above the Basement,” with Hirschberg as his cohost.
The name, Clough explained, comes from the podcast’s mission: “It’s all about encouraging people who love to write music and play music to come out of their basement and start playing live in public.”
The podcast is taped in the back room of Woods Hill Table, a restaurant in West Concord owned by Clough’s sister. “Chuck and I always plan some classic interview questions, but we like to keep it organic and real; we let the conversation go wherever. We want to hear about our subjects’ success and failures but also who they are, their life, their family, their day job,” Hirschberg said.
Recent interviewees have included Bonnie Hayes, chair of the songwriting department at Berklee College of Music, who has written songs for Cher, Adam Ant, Bette Midler, David Crosby and Bonnie Raitt; acclaimed singer-songwriter Sally Taylor; violinist Siri Smedvig; guitarist Adam Ezra; instrument maker Bob Childs; and regulars on the Boston music scene such as Alison Keslow, Greg Loughman and Chad Hollister. Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart is slated to tape an episode of “Above the Basement” later this spring.
“The common theme among our guests is music, whether they’re musicians, producers, or instrument makers,” Clough said.
Having a regional orientation is paramount to the podcasters’ mission. Clough describes himself as “passionate about getting the Boston music scene on the map.”
Along with introducing listeners to musicians they may not be familiar with, the podcasters discuss their favorite lesser-known musical venues, such as Main Streets Café in Concord, Bull Run in Shirley, Cary Hall in Lexington, Villageworks in West Acton, Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham, and Blue in Portland, Maine.
The notion that musicians have an easier time spreading the word about their work because of social media is somewhat deceptive, Hirschberg said.
“In this world of social media online, everyone is both more and less connected. It’s not the way it used to be when everyone went to coffeehouses to hear new music,” he said. “You can send a video of your music to the entire world, and people can listen, like it, share it, tweet it. But that’s still not the same as people sitting down in a club or coffeehouse listening to music together.”
With so many listeners in their own silos, Hirschberg said, “one of our goals on the podcast is to foster discussion about what makes an artist connect with the audience, and vice versa.”
Podcasting is a new enough phenomenon, Clough said, that some of his friends still mistakenly ask him “how that blog is going.”
Even some of the guests aren’t sure what they’re signing up for when they arrive for the taping. “Some start out a little skeptical; some are really excited. A podcast might be a very different medium for them. It’s not a performance; it’s a conversation.”
The medium also lends itself to variety. “One of our first mistakes was having too much talk and not enough music,” Clough said. “Our listeners were telling us that they love the conversation with the artists but they’d like to hear some music first so they have some idea of what these musicians do.”
Sometimes they include other audio components as well. “When Sally Taylor was on, we played a short recording of her at the age of 6 singing a song about pumpkins. Bonnie Hayes brought in the original demo cassette that she sent to Bonnie Raitt of ‘Have a Heart,’ and we played it on the show.”
Because listeners wanted to see what the musicians or their instruments looked like, Clough and Hirschberg brought in photographers Joe Wallace and Michelle Gendroux to take pictures and videos during the podcasting, which they now post on their “Above the Basement” website.
“A podcast is a creative project in and of itself,” said Hirschberg . “It’s like making an album or writing a book. But it’s also something to grow as a business. After taping 24 episodes, we had more than 3,000 downloads. But this is still the beginning. We’re learning as we go.”